'Creepy' billboard that tracks your movements raises privacy debate

The billboards use data from users' mobile phones to see how they respond to particular ads.

Clear Channel Outdoor
A still frame from a video shows Clear Channel Outdoor's Radar data analysis tool mapping information about people who have seen billboards owned by the company. The communications company argues the technology is anonymous and secure, but privacy advocates have raised questions about the billboards.

A new set of billboards that use data from mobile phones to track what people do once they pass an outdoor ad is drawing comparisons to the film “Minority Report."

The technology, developed by Clear Channel Outdoor Americas in partnership with several carriers including AT&T, would be very useful for advertisers, says Andy Stevens, senior vice president of research and insights at the outdoor advertising arm of the communications giant now known as iHeartMedia, to the New York Times.

Referring to “Minority Report,” where customized ads ask Tom Cruise’s character by name if he would like a Guinness and attempt to pitch a Lexus, Mr. Stevens drew a distinction between the film and the billboards, known as Out-Of-Home. But he acknowledged the technology could be put to unnerving uses.

“I'm not sure it's a great user experience and it is a little creepy, to be honest. With a mass-medium like Out-Of-Home, a better use is to target general patterns of consumer groups, not the individual,” he told the site MediaVillage.

Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns tens of thousands of billboards across the country, says it will combine them with data and analytic tools, known as Radar, to test whether an outdoor advertising campaign was effective.

So far, it has partnered with the shoe company Toms, finding that users’ awareness of the philanthropically-minded company increased — measured by whether users looked it up online or found the brand in a shoe store — after they saw a billboard. 

The company says it is using the same data that mobile advertisers have long used to display ads on users’ phones, noting that the information is aggregated and anonymous — making it unable to identify a single user.

But privacy advocates have often expressed concerns about mobile device tracking, particularly if location information is combined with records of what users do online to create a highly-detailed profile for marketing purposes.

They question whether users know they are being tracked, noting that agreeing to a single privacy policy can give a company access to consumers’ data through all its products.

“Given the sensitive nature of location data, all parties involved in Clear Channel's Radar service should provide clear and comprehensive privacy policies and should disclose detailed information about their data-sharing relationships with other companies,” wrote Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minn. in a letter to Clear Channel Outdoor’s chief executive on Monday.

His letter asks the company to provide more information about how users will consent to the billboard tracking and how it will handle protecting the security of the data the technology collects, particularly in terms of a users’ location.

Clear Channel Outdoor began making the technology available in its top 11 markets, including Los Angeles and New York, on Monday, according to the Times. It will be available nationwide later this year.

Its roll-out also comes in the midst of a related fight over whether the Federal Communications Commission should further regulate online privacy, a step made possible by the regulator’s classification of broadband Internet providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act.

Some groups, such as the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), argue the FCC should stay out of the fight and not pursue regulation on online privacy, which it has said it may tackle as early as this month.

Advocates for this position say existing regulations by the Federal Trade Commission, which allow regulators to fine or bar particular practices if they are “unfair” or “deceptive,” is an appropriate standard, arguing further regulation could restrict competition between providers.

In a report released on Tuesday, ITIF argues that users already have “meaningful” controls over their privacy, citing the availability of features offered by many Internet providers to block third party or targeted ads that use customers’ information gathered by the provider to display ads they think a customer might like. (ITIF president Robert Atkinson writes a regular column for the Monitor.)

But in July, a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Franken, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, argued the FCC should further clarify users’ right to online privacy.

“Consumers ought to be able to know at any time what kind of information an [Internet service provider] is collecting about them and how this information is being used,” they wrote in a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

Several studies seem to back up the lawmakers’ contentions.

The security software company Kaspersky Lab found that while 79 percent of survey respondents said they disliked being tracked and 41 percent didn’t actively protect their own privacy by using private browsing or do-not-track features, for example. 9 percent of 18,000 users who took the quiz said they were unaware they were being tracked at all.

Privacy advocates say that technology such as the billboards could particularly catch consumers who were unaware they were being tracked.

“People have no idea that they’re being tracked and targeted,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy told the Times. “It is incredibly creepy, and it’s the most recent intrusion into our privacy.”

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